Midterm elections were never Barack Obama’s strong suit.
During his time in the White House, the campaign seasons of 2010 and 2014 were among the lowest points of his presidency, as Democratic control of first the House and then the Senate washed away in some of the most humbling defeats of his time in office.
“I’m not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did,” Obama said the day after Democrats lost 63 seats in the House in the middle of his first term. “I’m sure there are easier ways to learn these lessons.”
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But as a former President, Obama is in high demand in the closing stretch of this election, opening a five-state tour here in Georgia on Friday night. He’s hoping to slow the prospect of a Republican wave that could deliver a similar fate to his longtime partner, President Joe Biden, who is also hitting the trail, making a rare joint appearance with Vice President Kamala Harris in Philadelphia.
Obama has recorded nearly two dozen television commercials for Democrats and the party’s campaign committees, with new ads popping up nearly every day this week. And he’s studied finite details of several secretary of state races, lending his name to fundraising efforts to these down-ballot contests that he sees as essential to protecting democracy.
“This is going to be a close race and we can’t afford to get it wrong,” Obama said in an ad for Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for Senate in North Carolina, one of several personalized messages he taped for candidates in all corners of the country.
After his visit to Atlanta on Friday, the former President is heading to the critical battlegrounds of Michigan and Wisconsin on Saturday, followed by a trip to Nevada on Tuesday. He then is set to return to Pennsylvania for the closing weekend of the campaign, hoping to rally Democrats and boost turnout in the final days of early voting leading to the November 8 election.
Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams, who is also chairwoman of the Georgia Democratic Party, said the former President has a unique ability to motivate and make the case for Democrats.
“A lot of people here call him their forever President,” Williams, who represents Georgia’s Atlanta-based 5th District, told CNN. “We’ve been trying to encourage people to go out and vote early. He can help us drive that message home and drive home what’s at stake, not just for our base, but for younger voters who remember some of the excitement around his election.”
Like many two-term Presidents, Obama’s track record has always been far better when his own name is on the ballot. Yet he remains in high demand from Democratic candidates, many of whom are shying away from requesting campaign appearances or television ads with Biden, whose approval rating is 41% in CNN’s Poll of Polls.
To date, Obama’s involvement in the midterms has primarily been through taping ads and holding fundraisers in August and September for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
In those speeches to some of the party’s biggest donors, the former President sounded the alarm about the threats to democracy in the Trump era.
“One of the things we learned over the last six years is that democracy is not self-executing,” Obama said during a New York fundraiser last month.
He amplified his concern during a recent interview with Pod Save America, a podcast hosted by a quartet of longtime aides from his presidential campaign and administration.
“Democracy is fragile. You have to tend to it, you have to fight for it,” Obama said. “And this midterm election, I think, is going to be a moment in which that battle has to be joined, and that means people have to turn up.”
The former President’s fears about the erosion of democracy will be a theme of his remarks over the coming week, aides said, following the chaos spurred by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of fraud that followed his loss in the 2020 presidential election and the number of Trump-backed election deniers who are on the ballot for secretary of state in key states across the country.
It is uncommon for a former President to campaign for down-ballot candidates, but Obama’s foray into secretary of state contests signals how some Democrats view the office as critical, given that the winners this year will control key election infrastructure during the 2024 presidential race.
“Given the high stakes of this year’s midterm elections, President Obama wants to do his part to help Democrats win next month,” said Eric Schultz, a senior adviser to the former President. “He looks forward to stumping for candidates up and down the ballot, especially in races and states that will have consequences for the administration of 2024 elections.”
The former President is also intensely focused on key races in the Senate, where he served for two years before winning the White House. Like during his time in the Oval Office, control of the Senate hangs in the balance in November.
In a recent ad recorded for Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, he said: “Your vote could make the difference on issues from abortion rights to voting rights. That’s why you need leaders like Maggie who will fight for you.”
And to voters in Pennsylvania, where an open Senate seat is among the closest contests in the nation, Obama implored voters to back state Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
“When the fate of our democracy and a woman’s right to choose are on the line, I know John will fight for Pennsylvanians,” Obama said. “You can count on John Fetterman. Make sure he can count on you.”
For Obama, the burst of appearances in ads and in upcoming stops on the campaign trail amount to one of his most visible forays back into politics. He acknowledges the forceful headwinds facing the Democratic Party, aides tell CNN, and is mindful of the limits of his ability to fight the tides of history where a President’s party almost always loses seats in a midterm election, as he did in 2010 and 2014.
His travels come after already casting his own ballot, done alongside former first lady Michelle Obama last week in Chicago, which remains their official residence and where they are building the Obama presidential library.
After thanking election workers for their critical role in the democratic process, Obama grabbed his ballot and waxed nostalgic about how ballots were once cast on a punch-card that strongly encouraged straight-ticket voting.
“You know, I do kind of miss the punch thing, that was fun,” Obama said with a smile. “You could get out some aggression.”